Announcing our first Vice President of Growth & Impact – Zev Lowe

We are excited to announce that Atma Connect has hired Zev Lowe as our first Vice President of Growth & Impact. This newly-created role will oversee Atma Connect’s cross-functional growth team, and will lead our field team in Indonesia, with the goal of connecting more people through AtmaGo, our award-winning app, so they can receive disaster alerts, report disaster-related issues, post local problems, learn about job opportunities, and share news and resources.

Zev Lowe brings over 12 years of leadership experience to Atma Connect. He was recently on the founding team of Worldreader, a FastCompany “most innovative” global technology nonprofit serving over 10M people. As a member of Worldreader’s Global Leadership Team, Mr. Lowe developed innovative models and partnerships that harnessed technology to address the lack of reading materials in the Global South.

Mr. Lowe has lived and worked extensively in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, he served as a Fellow with the microfinance nonprofit Kiva.org, and he also worked in the private sector in the software industry in Malaysia. He holds an MBA from ESADE Business School and an undergraduate degree in Computer Science and Anthropology from Dartmouth College. In addition to English, he also speaks Bahasa Indonesia and Spanish.

“Atma Connect is privileged to have connected 1 million people, allowing them to share information, help each other, create better lives, and prepare for and recover from natural disasters” said Meena Palaniappan, Atma Connect’s Founder & CEO. “With Zev on board, we’re looking forward to expanding our impact in Indonesia, as well as in other key geographies around the world.”

“Communities with good social networks bounce back more quickly from adversity,” said Mr. Lowe. “It is a privilege to join Atma Connect in harnessing technology to empower people, strengthen social ties, and develop resilience. I’m excited to help advance Atma Connect’s vision of building the power of people helping people in vulnerable communities around the world.”

Zev Lowe joins Atma Connect’s headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at zev[at]atmaconnect[dot]org.

Social Media for Social Good? Confronting the Social Media Beast

AtmaGo Users participate in clean-up of the Garang River in Semarang, Indonesia.

AtmaGo Users participate in clean-up of the Garang River in Semarang, Indonesia.

By Meena Palaniappan

Over the past few months, social media has become a digital pariah — major platforms have been accused of fostering a climate of intolerance, making people vulnerable to propaganda, and fraying our social fabric. And, to make maters worse, recent revelations about foreign influence and Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook apps to harvest data have even staunch supporters of social media questioning the personal and societal risks of data sharing online. There are, in short, huge problems with social media and its attention-based economy. Yet, there are also huge benefits to being connected with online communities and instant information.

In November of last year, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, made waves by stating that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” created by social media “are destroying how society works.” Other major players in the social media space, such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, have stepped forward with similar remarks.

In response to this evolving consciousness, in February 2018, a group of former Facebook and Google employees started the Center for Humane Technology. According to the group: “What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.”

As the CEO of a social media platform dedicated to the idea of “neighbors helping neighbors” — and as the mom of a precocious 11-year-old who recently told me that “social media is evil” — I feel the tension more than most. Why did social media, once hailed as a beacon for democratizing information, empowering social movements, and building a more connected world, lead to so many of these negative and unintended outcomes? How can we reverse this?

Social Psychology and Business Models

To understand the dark-side of social media, we have to look at human psychology, group behavior and technology. As Susanna Schrobsdorff wrote in Time last year, anger provides a “burst of adrenaline” when expressed, and “anger is particularly contagious on social media,” because we are wired to take emotional queues from our peers. Empirical research has backed this up: A study by Beihang University of Sina Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging platform, found that rage travelled faster than joy, sadness or disgust. A 2016 study in Nature about Facebook found more active users spread more negative messages.

And not only anger, but false information spreads rapidly online. This combination can promote a deep polarization and encourage the spread of conspiracy theories. Sinan Aral, a professor at MIT, wrote a piece on March 8th in the NY Times, summarizing research that he and colleagues have conducted. Their analysis, which studied millions of tweets over the entire 11 year history of Twitter, found that false stories spread far faster and more broadly than true ones do. Researchers like Dr. Aral argue that it’s not just the nature of the technology — but also the business models that support it. As Aral puts it, “the social media advertising market creates incentives for the spread of false stories because their wider diffusion makes them profitable.”

Roger McNamee, an early investor and advisor to Facebook also wrote about the far reaching negative consequences of Facebook’s business model. He notes that Facebook, Google and other social media platforms make their money from advertising. This makes users of these platforms not the customer, but actually the product that is being sold to advertisers.

This, he theorizes, is what leads to the unintended negative consequences of social media — namely, chasing advertising dollars at the expense of users health and the health of communities. In a panel at the New School, Roger McNamee said “Facebook created a business model that essentially made people who believe [conspiracy theories] more valuable. It was in [Facebook’s] interest to appeal to fear and anger.”

In a March 20, NYTimes Op/Ed, Zayneb Tufecki takes this argument further. In writing about the Cambridge Analytica controversy, she argues that  “A business model based on vast data surveillance and charging clients to opaquely target users based on this kind of extensive profiling will inevitably be misused. The real problem is that billions of dollars are being made at the expense of the health of our public sphere…”

Searching for Social Solutions

Given the array of negative outcomes we’ve experienced, how can we reform social media? Palihapitiya, the former Facebook executive, argues for getting off social media or strictly limiting the time you spend on it. McNamee argues for more transparency and regulation. And Aral makes the case that if platforms “demote accounts or posts” that spread false stories, that the financial incentives would swing towards more factual content.

These all sound like good ideas, but I think we need to go further to focus our energy on building networks that are dedicated to prosocial ideas and content and that are designed to strengthen local communities. This dream social media platform is a tall order, but this is why we built AtmaGo, a social network dedicated to social cohesion and community resilience.

One advantage we have, as a non-profit, is that we don’t have to respond to the demands of advertisers. This has given us the luxury of focusing on the needs and opportunities of people living in low income communities in the developing world. Not being beholden to advertisers, but to users, has also allowed us to create an app that focuses on prosocial content and that works on the lower end mobile phones and systems our users have.

Our business model means that we are not being forced solely to maximize time on the app, which could lead to chasing posts that promote fear and anger. We also are able to continually follow the demands of our users, even when it leads to users spending less time on AtmaGo.

For example, our users wanted to see more change on the ground as a result of what was happening on AtmaGo. So, with the help of IDEO.org and other partners, we added the ability for users to report problems to government and organize events to improve their communities. Since then, AtmaGo users in cities across Indonesia have created events to remove solid waste from their neighborhoods and plant trees. Activities like these not only reduce the impact of flooding, which is a persistent problem throughout Indonesia, but they also promote real-world social interactions that are critical for the health of communities, and their ability to bounce back from disaster.

In studies of Hurricane Sandy and natural disasters in Chicago, researchers have found that areas with high levels of community interaction and organization fared far better than others. In a recent study on the tsunami in Japan, communities with good social networks had lower mortality and bounced back more quickly from disaster.

Our work at Atma is inspired by the Indonesian idea of Gotong Royong, or mutual support — neighbors working together to improve their communities. Not only are humans wired to connect, but we are also born with an innate desire to help others. Economist Samuel Bowles says, “In the past 20 years, we have discovered that people — all around the world — are a lot more moral and a lot less selfish than economists and evolutionary biologists had previously assumed, and that our moral commitments are surprisingly similar: to reciprocity, fairness and helping people in need, even if acting on these motives can be personally costly for a person.”

There is a lot we do at Atma to promote prosocial content, from sponsoring community resilience gatherings like tree planting, to contests where people share what they love about their neighborhood. Community moderators set the tone for “helpful” content, and our marketing focuses on “neighbors helping neighbors.” And, for people living in poor communities who are too easily ignored by governments, AtmaGo makes them visible. One of our users said: “Marginalized people are not helpless, with AtmaGo people can voice their aspirations, and show the world that they are worthy of attention too.”

When my son decried social media, I nodded in agreement, but also asked him to think about the benefits — of being connected, of being able to share information widely and with no cost, of amplifying voices that are often unheard.

There are major problems with social media, that much is clear, but there are also huge benefits that we have just started to understand and capture. AtmaGo is our attempt to create a better approach — one that’s explicitly prosocial and focused on people helping people. We may not be as big as Facebook (yet), and we can’t say we’ve solved every problem, but we are trying to find a better path — in the end, we are betting that the right kind of social media can unlock more of what is good in humanity.

How does a startup evaluate impact?

Efforts to quantify the benefit of social program date back at least to Thomas Hobbes, but in the past 15 years there has been a laudable push to subject public and nonprofit programs to greater scrutiny (see Holley and Carr, 2014). Advances in computing, and in the analysis of “big data” have made it relatively easy to create complex metrics and exciting graphics. But despite these innovations, creating meaningful impact evaluations—especially for early-stage ventures—is still quite challenging.

This is because the most rigorous measures of impact, which assess whether a program is actually changing conditions in the world, typically require expensive and time-consuming longitudinal or randomized controlled studies. The results of a 5- or 10-year impact study will arrive too late for those who are being hit by floods or suffering the effects of broken infrastructure today. This is why we need to be both rigorous and “realistic” about what evaluation can offer social innovators and philanthropists (Ebrahim, 2013).

The good news is that by applying a systematic evaluation framework to this challenge, we can create a hybrid approach that combines outcome evaluation with impact estimates based on publicly available data. Please read our impact evaluation white paper to learn more about our approach.

Atma Ventures to Kenya and Hosts IDEO in Indonesia

As Spring turns to Summer in California, our user-base continues to grow in Indonesia—and our organization continues to take shape as an independent nonprofit. Last month we had over 6,000 active monthly users, and we have reached over 30,000 unique users since our launch.

And, people have been using AtmaGo to improve their communities from the ground up. These video interviews with our users on the ground in Indonesia detail the problems they face and show how AtmaGo provides useful information—to help deal with neighborhood problems, find jobs, and respond to flooding. A recent post on garbage piles in Malang, which makes problems like flooding worse, led to local government action to clean up the problem.

We were pleased to be featured in the May Global Resilience Partnership email on The Power of Participatory Data in Community Resilience. We share the mission of the Partnership to use technology to “democratize data” and unleash the resourcefulness and ingenuity of all kinds of communities across the globe.

As a winner of the Amplify Urban Resilience Challenge, we had the opportunity to send Sergio Paluch, our Chief of Product, and Alfan Rodhi, our Indonesian Field Director, to Kenya for the IDEO/Amplify design boot camp. During the week-long camp, Sergio and Alfan got a crash course in IDEO’s “human centered design” methodology and learned from design experts how to apply their frameworks to our challenges.

Atma Ventures to Kenya

 

Alfan (front-right) and other members of the IDEO bootcamp visiting the Kibera slum in Kenya, April, 2016. Credit: Sergio Paluch.

And, as we write, our CEO is in Jakarta to join Atma’s Indonesian staff in hosting the IDEO.org design. We look forward to reports from the field!

AtmaGo App Wins IDEO.org’s Amplify Urban Resilience Challenge

Atma Connect—a California-based technology organization focused on connecting and empowering people in the developing world—has won the 2016 Global Amplify Urban Resilience Challenge with their AtmaGo.com urban resilience app. The Amplify Urban Resilience Challenge is a partnership of The Rockefeller Foundation, USAID, the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA), the UK Development Agency (DFID), OpenIDEO, and IDEO.org.

“Atma is thrilled by the opportunity to work with IDEO.org’s Amplify Program and the Global Resilience Partnership to improve the resilience of low-income urban communities,” said Founder and CEO Meena Palaniappan. “We know that thousands of communities around the developing world face great risks from floods and other extreme weather events—and we know that climate change is going to make many of these threats more severe in coming years. But we also know that local communities have ideas and solutions that they can share with each other and the world.”

The AtmaGo web app, which was launched in January of 2015, now has over 20,000 users in three Indonesian cities—Jakarta, Malang and Lamongan. These users are sharing solutions, reporting problems, and posting information with the goal of “warga bantu warga” or neighbors helping neighbors.

“Thank you to IDEO and Amplify for this great opportunity!” said Alfan Rodhi, Atma’s Indonesia Field Director. “People in our cities have ideas on how to respond to floods and build stronger communities—but we need to unite them using technology so we can truly be ‘neighbors helping neighbors’.”

When terrorists attacked Jakarta on January 13, 2016, AtmaGo users shared news and updates. When floodwaters inundated Jakarta in February of 2015, users posted messages on how to protect essential household items before the floods, which neighborhoods to avoid due to floodwaters, and then posted updates as the waters receded. But AtmaGo provides more than just timely disaster information—users can find jobs, post community events, share recommendations and report problems.

“The IDEO-Amplify win couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Sergio Paluch, Chief of Product. “As we embark on creating an Android application, we are excited to be learning from IDEO and working together to improve AtmaGo.”

AtmaGo Reaches 20,000 Users—And We Are an Amplify Finalist…

Just a quick update today: AtmaGo has reached 20,000 users in Indonesia! Big thanks to all of our Indonesian staff for driving this forward—and to our new users for creating posts on everything from the recent terror attacks in Jakarta, to jobs, events and so much more.

We are also excited to announce that Atma Connect, the organization behind AtmaGo, is a finalist for the Amplify Urban Resilience Challenge. This is an amazing opportunity to participate in a collaborative design bootcamp and get funding from a great coalition of organizations.